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Gove's on the Bac foot with a white paper stuck in 1868

Michael Gove has outstripped Kenneth Baker in backwardness. Baker's 1988 national curriculum matched almost point for point the curriculum for the new state secondary schools of 1904. Gove has surpassed him by nearly 40 years.

His new English Baccalaureate is virtually a carbon copy of the 1868 Taunton report's curriculum for most "middle class schools", as they were then called.

The new award will be given to all 16-year-olds who have good exam grades in "English, mathematics, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography". Taunton's list is identical, except that it makes both history and geography compulsory.

How is it that a curriculum designed for clerks and shopkeepers in Dickens' England is at the cutting edge in 2010? Gove's white paper does not say. It talks of giving pupils a "properly rounded academic education" via "a wide range of traditional subjects". It also strongly hints that a reformed national curriculum will be cut down to these "core" subjects. But it gives no reason why.

Things moved slowly enough in curriculum land before last May, but at least they were moving, not reversing across the centuries. The first task is to say what schools are supposed to be for. You don't start with a list of subjects, but with aims. In 2007, Labour recognised this. It produced 30-odd statutory aims, mainly to do with children's personal and civic well-being.

An aims-based curriculum now seems to have gone out the window. A pity. One might have thought that David Cameron's zeal for promoting well-being would steer schools policy in his direction. But Gove's traditionalism has got there before him. Instead of an education that equips pupils to lead fulfilling lives, it's heads down for algebraic equations and French future perfects.

Why? Baker didn't give us a rationale for his 1988 curriculum, and Gove doesn't either. We know he adored the traditional fare he got at his Aberdeen grammar school, but only an education minister one tree short of an arboretum would impose a personal preference on a whole nation. That can't be the reason. Neither can the alleged competitive advantage that a traditional curriculum gives families who are more at home than others with a traditional curriculum. Even to hint at this - and I hope I'm not accused of doing so - can only be a sign of leftie paranoia.

We end up justification-bereft. In a liberal democracy that is a serious deficiency. We expect a reasoned case for new policies.

Earlier this year, right-leaning think tank Civitas proposed a national curriculum consisting precisely of Gove's five traditional subject areas. David Conway's Liberal Education and the National Curriculum disinterred this from Matthew Arnold's 1868 ideas on German education which helped to shape the Taunton proposal.

We know that Gove's colleague Nick Gibb, like him, an aficionado of traditional knowledge, finds Conway's paper "fascinating". Whether this is where the white paper curriculum originated I don't know, but the signs point that way.

If Gove is pressed to produce a justification for his English Bac, he would be wise not to follow Conway into an Arnold-type rationale. Our national poet and man of culture thought that we are all born with special aptitudes, either for the study of nature or humanities, the two together forming "the circle of knowledge". Children need to be inducted into this whole circle before specialising according to their innate aptitude.

The feebleness of this argument is obvious. No evidence provided for the claimed division of innate gifts. No reason given why school education should be built around a totality of knowledge, rather than some other aim - equipping children for a flourishing life, for instance, or for civic responsibility. No reason why, even within its own terms, science, maths, history, geography, mother tongue and another language complete the circle of knowledge. What about economics, political science, psychology, sociology, religious knowledge, philosophy, self-knowledge ...?

The white paper is keen on rigour, as is Gove himself. Over to him, then, for a rigorous defence of his new curriculum.

John White is emeritus professor of the philosophy of education, Institute of Education, London University.

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